Friday, December 17, 2004

Twin Peaks and Buffy

This was an essay I did for the final for my TV class. Check it out, it doesn't go too far in depth, but it's got some good stuff.

For most of television’s history, the television drama was an exclusively male dominated form, featuring male protagonists in male-oriented genres, like action or cop series. However, in the 1980s and 1990s, new shows began to combine traits of existing drama series, with those of a traditionally female oriented genre, the soap opera, traits like serialization and a strong focus on the emotional lives of characters. Both Twin Peaks and Buffy the Vampire Slayer combine a traditionally male-oriented genre, the action or cop series, with heavy use of soap opera elements. In meshing the two genres, the series embrace a new type of storytelling that has more in common with art cinema or a novel than with a traditional TV series.
Twin Peaks was a fusion of two traditional television genres, the male oriented cop drama and the soap opera. The show fully embraces genre conventions of each. The main character, Dale Cooper, is an FBI agent, who, over the course of the series works with a local sheriff’s department to solve the murder of Laura Palmer. While the serialization of the investigation is unusual, the setup is classic television. Sheriff Truman and the rustic Twin Peaks police department bring to mind The Andy Griffith Show. Cooper’s adventures in investigating the murder would be at home on traditional cop shows. He questions all the people who knew Laura, finding out new information from each person. He goes undercover in the first season finale, and during a stakeout succeeds in capturing a prime suspect in the murder. The investigative techniques used by the characters are typical of television cop series, but the serialization of the investigation makes it unique.
However, the show has another dimension that is pure soap opera. The series’ focus on many different characters within a single town recalls day time soap operas like Days of Our Lives. The writers are unapologetic about their adoption of soap opera conventions, as shown by the show within a show, Invitation to Love. The introduction of Laura’s identical cousin, Maddie, is both a stereotypical soap opera plot, and recalls an early female-oriented program, The Pattie Duke Show. Also, the show’s intensely serial nature is directly descended from soap opera. Every episode is continuous, and plot threads routinely stretch on for ten or twelve episodes. So, the series uses a soap opera structure as the backdrop for a serious police investigation, with the characters’ personal lives and conflicts viewed through the lens of a cop show. In this way, the creators are able to have a show with the gravity of a cop drama, but the continuing emotional development of a soap opera.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer also fuses two traditional genres together. On one level, it’s an action show, about a girl fighting vampires, but on another level it’s a relationship drama, that frequently strays into soap opera. What Buffy does is use the action conflicts to physically represent the emotional conflict of the characters. This is first done successfully in the second season when, after sleeping with Buffy, Angel loses his soul and becomes Angelus. In the following episode, “Innocence,” Buffy and Angel fight, and through their fighting, Buffy attempts to work out her emotional issues with regards to the new Angel. So, while the fight is a necessary element of an action show, it also serves a soap opera element, a physical representation of the characters’ emotional problems.
Another scene that uses fighting as a way of working out emotional issues is Buffy and Spike’s fight in “Smashed.” For an entire season, Spike had been in love with Buffy, but she had resisted him. In “Smashed,” he finds out he can hurt her, and they fight each other, however, as they hit each other they gradually begin to kiss, and eventually have sex, the implicit message being that for Buffy and Spike, sex and violence are the same urge. The scene represents the way the show turns violence into an act of communication between people. Because Buffy is the slayer, and so many of the people she deals with are superpowered, they engage each other through physical violence rather than traditional discussion. Buffy and Spike relate purely on the level of violence, something she makes explicit when she says, “Well, I do beat him up a lot. For Spike that's like third base.” By basing Buffy and Spike’s relationship on physical conflict, the writers are able to incorporate the action elements into the soap opera plots.
Because Buffy is an action show, it has to have a fight scene in each show. But as the show goes on, the fight scene moves to the periphery, and the soap opera elements become more prominent, a trend that culminates in the sixth season. While most seasons are driven by a fight against “the big bad,” such as fallen God, Glory, the sixth season is driven purely by the personal problems of the characters. In addition to this, it is the most serialized season, a heavily soap operatic element. The main villains of the season are a trio of geeky people Buffy went to high school with, who have just as many personal problems as the heroes. All the plot developments revolve around traumas within the group. Buffy, who had been resurrected earlier in the year, has to deal with the fact that she was pulled out of heaven, and now “lives in hell” as a result. Xander and Anya deal with anxiety over their upcoming marriage, and eventually with the consequences of their breakup, a storyline reminiscent of soap opera. Willow struggles with her breakup with Tara, and her subsequent “addiction” to magic, an arc that culminates when she turns evil and attempts to destroy the world at the end of the season.
The Willow plot in season six takes a soap opera convention, the addiction plot, and plays it out on a grander scale. Starting with season two, Willow had used magic, but in the beginning of season six, Tara breaks up with her, due to overuse of magic. This sets up the episodes “Smashed” and “Wrecked,” where she bottoms out after a binge that leads to Dawn getting hurt. She is “clean” for a while, and reunites with Tara, but Tara gets shot by Warren, which sends Willow over the edge. She uses magic to rip the skin off of Warren and kill him, and then proceeds to attack her friends. Eventually, she decides that the pain is too much, and tries to end the world, only to be saved by Xander, her closest friend.
By comparing the end of the Willow arc to a similar story on Six Feet Under, we can see how Buffy takes soap opera conventions and plays them out using the tropes of an action show. Six Feet Under uses soap opera conventions, without filtering them through an action show lens. In Six Feet Under, after Nate’s wife goes missing, presumed dead, he goes on a drinking binge, allows himself to be beaten up, and contemplates suicide, only to be stopped by his ex, Brenda. These episodes feature the exact same emotional beats as Buffy, but show how it would be done if Buffy did not have the supernatural and action elements as a part of its premise. Nate’s contemplation of suicide and Willow’s attempt to end the world are the same desire, filtered through each show’s specific lens. In the end, both characters find comfort with an ex-lover, who helps them through the pain they are feeling. Buffy uses many soap opera conventions, notably extreme serialization of character conflicts, but filters them through an action show lens, creating a hybrid of traditionally male and traditionally female oriented form.
The dream sequence is a trademark of art cinema, notable for valuing visual expressionism over narrative clarity, something that television is not known for. However, both series feature episodes set almost entirely in subjective dream worlds, episodes that represent the series transcending their genres, and creating a new kind of television. On Buffy the Vampire Slayer, this episode is “Restless.” The fourth season finale, it breaks with the action show tenet that the season finale should feature the culmination of an action plot, such as in the third season finale, “Graduation Day II,” when Buffy and an army of students fight a massive snake demon who was formerly Sunnydale’s mayor. The action climax is in the previous episode, and the season finale is concerned with the characters. “Restless” features four separate dreams, one for each of the series’ main characters. While the dreams are loosely connected, and there is narrative build throughout the episode, the primary focus is on exploring the mental state of each character through a variety of filmic techniques used to represent the world of dreams.
Whereas the traditional TV dream sequence is either designed to service a specific plot point, or to be a source of comedy, these dreams are designed to replicate the feeling of actual dreams, with a variety of random elements, ignorance for narrative rules, and no clear narrative drive. The episode seems to be far removed from soap opera tradition, with its lack of narrative development in the episode; however, it actually takes the serialization of the soap opera to the extreme. Rather than just having to be aware of the ongoing plots, we have to know the character’s mindsets dating back to the first season to understand what is happening. In Willow’s dream, we see her in the clothes she wore in the first episode of the series, and dialogue from that episode is repeated. A dedicated viewer will realize that the dream is discussing her fear that she is still the geeky character of the first season, a fear that is implicit in her actions throughout the series, but most explicitly represented here. This sort of continuity demands an attention to subtext that is not generally demanded by the soap opera. Restless serves as a coda for four years of the show, and brings together many of the character subtexts that had been developing over the series’ run. This episode is not an exception in demanding the viewer be familiar with intricate details of the characters’ personal lives, and that tendency is one element that shows how the series takes traditional soap opera characteristics to the extreme.
The episode also upends the demands of the action genre. The first three dreams feature some violence, but not the sort of action that is demanded by the genre. In Buffy’s dream, the obligatory action sequence finally appears, but it is shot from great distance, in slow motion and without sound, thus rendering the action sequence in the mode of art cinema, rather than in the traditional visual language of the show. After fighting for a while, Buffy tells the first slayer, her opponent, that she has had enough and is going to wake up now, thus denying the audience of an action payoff for the episode. Because the series is so intensely character based, the inclusion of the action sequence seems unnecessary, and despite the series’ firm presence in the action genre, this episode in particular has transcended the need for a traditional action sequence. This episode, with its ignorance of narrative rules, and reliance on subtext and visual metaphor seems to be a break from television tradition, but it does have one notable forbearer, an episode that the red curtains in Willow’s dream cannot help but recall, the final episode of Twin Peaks.
Twin Peaks’ last episode is set almost entirely in the world of the red room, a mentally subjective realm that may be part of a larger dimension known as the black lodge. The episode represents a radical reinterpretation of the type of narrative fulfillment one would expect from a cop show or a soap opera.
The episode begins with Cooper going in to the black lodge, to save his girlfriend, Annie, who has been kidnapped by Windom Earle. This represents a perfect fusion of the cop show elements with the soap elements. Cooper had been working on the Earle case for many episodes, and here at the finale, it dovetailed into his personal story. However, rather than providing an obvious sort of narrative resolution, David Lynch brings together all the symbolic elements he had been developing over the course of the series to create a surreal, mostly silent journey through the black lodge, that resolves the narrative in a completely unexpected way.
Much like “Restless,” understanding this episode requires complete knowledge of the series to date, in a way that goes beyond the typical soap opera. Cooper winds up in the same space as his dream from the second episode, and Laura says, “See you in twenty-five years,” which requires the viewer to realize, based on Cooper’s appearance in it, that the original red room sequence took place twenty-five years into the future. Leland Palmer reappears, as well as Maddie Ferguson, characters who had not been seen for fifteen episodes. This episode resolves a lot of the issues surrounding the series, but in an implicit way. To understand what occurs in this episode, the viewer needs to look back on previous episodes, and the movie based on the series, to piece together the cosmology that Lynch was creating. Along the way, many facts are left deliberately ambiguous, and the end of the series is extremely open, both elements characteristic of art cinema.
This episode completely subverts the tenets of the action genre. Rather than giving the audience a payoff in which Cooper battles Earle, Lynch plays everything out symbolically. Cooper confronts Earle, only to watch Earle have his soul sucked from his body by malignant entity Bob. Cooper offers his soul to save Annie, and rather than this sacrifice being enough to save her, it leads to the real Cooper being replaced by a doppelganger, who runs through the lodge, and ultimately escapes into the real world.
What Lynch has done in this episode is take a plot line typical of the work place drama, and twist it. On shows like ER and NYPD Blue, a character is frequently killed or written off after choosing a personal life over a work life. That is exactly what Cooper does in the last episode. Once Cooper is ready to commit to Annie, he is forced to sacrifice himself to save her, and symbolically dies when the doppelganger escapes into the real world.
So, what this episode does is take plot lines developed in the tradition of a cop show and a soap opera, and subvert the audience expectations for the resolution of said plots. Rather than giving the audience a straight forward duel between detective and criminal, we are given a surreal, symbolic battle that is as much about the director’s artistic vision as it is about resolving the narrative. In spotlighting the art over the story, the series becomes more like art cinema than anything traditionally seen on TV.
In conclusion, both Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Twin Peaks bring together elements of the soap opera and the action series, and in the process create a new type of series, a highly serialized, art-cinema influenced novelistic TV series. In using soap opera conventions, the series do not only serialize plot, character and symbolic development is also serialized, to the point that characters become the focus, and the necessities of action or police investigation become background. Both series demand multiple viewings to understand the foreshadowing and implicit narrative development. In creating multi-layered, complex series, creators Joss Whedon and David Lynch develop a new type of television, one that is not designed for episode by episode payoffs, but instead to create a larger world, one that is slowly revealed with each passing episode. By using the series to tell one massive story, rather than many little ones, they are able to create characters and worlds with a depth that film cannot match, thus fully actualizing television as a storytelling medium.

Related Posts
Angel: Better to Burn Out than to Fade Away (3/16/2005)
Ten Works That Changed My Life: Part II (1-5) (5/2/2005)
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (7/26/2005)

3 comments:

blowhole said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
blowhole said...

Sharp insight into the similar, dual natures of each show. You nailed it. On their heads.

The way I have looked at them before this is that they are the two best dramedies ever. The comedy written into both dramas is clever, twisted, and brilliant.

TP & BTVS are BTW, my two favorite TV series ever.

Patrick said...

The blend of comedy and drama is one of the things that TV can do much better than film. Even comparatively heavier works like The Sopranos or The Wire are frequently hilarious. The longer runtime makes it easier to replicate the rhythms of real life, where drama and comedy always co-exist.